Geri Allen: Apollo's Muse

Bob Kenselaar By

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Allen and Carrington have also teamed together with bassist/vocalist Esperanza Spalding, and are touring actively in 2013 as a trio. "Terri Lyne brought Esperanza and me together to perform, and it was magic from the very first note. It is so much fun and quite thrilling," says Allen. "Esperanza and Terri bring all that is beautiful and authentic about life onto the bandstand, and the music moves through time and space in a spirit of optimism and acceptance." The group, known as ACS, will be performing at the Montreal Jazz Festival on June 29 and touring Europe and the western United States in July and August. "We are celebrating the great [saxophonist] Wayne Shorter and will be performing many of the gems from his amazing body of work. We will also be performing at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark in the fall, as a part of the James Moody Democracy of Jazz Festival."

Another notable jazz vocal project for Allen is her recording with Elizabeth Kontomanou (Plus Loin, 2012), featuring a spare setting of vocals and piano alone and a wonderful, spiritual feel. "Elisabeth is an incredible force, and I hope she will come to the states to perform more often. Mount V. Allen, my brother, brought us together on a date in Canada. What a voice and what a fearless approach. She wanted to look at this spiritually based work, which is close to my heart."

Allen's recent recordings under her own name include a set of three solo piano-driven outings for the Motéma label, co-produced by Kunle Mwanga. The first, Flying Toward the Sound (2010), subtitled A Solo Piano Excursion Inspired by Cecil Taylor, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock , was the outcome of her Guggenheim Fellowship, and was met with considerable critical acclaim. The second, A Child Is Born (2011), was equally well received. "I always wanted to do a Christmas CD, to create a timeless photograph of shared memories of family, love ones and the true meaning of Christmas. Ora Harris and I visited Bethlehem in 2007, and this was a life-changing experience for me. I am grateful to [Motéma label head] Jana Herzen for providing this platform for me to express the joy and wonder of Christmas through music."

The third solo piano recording in the series is the forthcoming Grand River Crossings (2013), which celebrates Allen's roots in Detroit, Michigan. "This CD celebrates Motown and the Motor City. I revisited a reference from Marvin Gaye, which we explored on Elisabeth Kontomanou's CD. Some of the composers represented include Stevie Wonder and Smokey Robinson. The Supremes, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson and Aretha Franklin are also sources of inspiration. Gerald Wilson and Roy Brook's compositions are also represented. I wanted to embrace all the diverse aspects of the Motown, the Motor City pool." While the focus is primarily Allen's solo playing, guest accompanists include trumpeter Marcus Belgrave, an early Allen mentor, and Detroit-based saxophonist David McMurray.

In addition to citing her early Detroit influences and the modern piano triumvirate of Taylor, Tyner and Hancock, Allen is quick to point to another major source of continuing inspiration in her music and her life: the prolific pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams. "Her musk is timeless, as Duke Ellington so eloquently stated. As a pianist, as a composer and as an educator, I follow her lead in many ways still. I have been the musical director of the Mary Lou Williams Collective now for some ten years or more, performed her mass, "Music for Peace" with Carmen Lundy on numerous occasions, and I am always learning more through the experience of her music. My Christmas CD and my vocal suite, For the Healing of the Nations, written in tribute to the victims and survivors of the 9/11 tragedy and their families, found inspiration from Mary Lou Williams' mass for peace. She was a great humanitarian and continues to inspire in so many ways." Other notable recent work by Allen that honors Williams is her recording with saxophonist Oliver Lake, drummer Andrew Cyrille and bassist Reggie Workman, Trio 3 & Geri Allen, Celebrating Mary Lou Williams: Live At Birdland, New York (Intakt Records, 2011).


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